Cartagena is definitely the pearl of the Caribbean. The colonial architecture of this beautiful walled town dating back to the 16th century, mixes perfectly with a colourful mix of peoples and cultures.
Cartagena is completely walled with cute little streets and squares that provide for hours of strolling around and admiring the colonial architecture. The main charm of Cartagena is just to walk around the old town, discover nice streets, houses, shops and squares, as well as the lively night life.
There are many museums and churches one can visit. In my opinion the main ones to visit are the Museo de la Inquisición and the Museo del Oro (especially if you can’t make it to the one in Bogota). Several of the churches and monasteries are also worth a visit.
The most important landmarks are Plaza de Bolívar, Plaza de Santo Domingo, Plaza de la Aduana, Plaza de Los Coches and Puerta del Reloj. I also recommend sitting down and observing the life on those squares, the hordes of wandering tourists and vendors trying to sell all sort of stuff to them. There are also local ladies dressed in typical Caribbean outfit carrying fruit on their heads, they will either sell the fruit or pose for a picture. However, if you want to take a picture without paying, she will try to obstruct the picture.
The city itself was already built as a fortress, but there is another one just across the canal on the mainland – Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. It can be reached in just 10 min by food from the Puerta del Reloj. This fortress is quite amazing for its maze of underground tunnels built by the Spanish. The tunnels are extensive and one can really get lost in there as it’s not signed at all. Apart for the tunnels the fortress is nothing special. Nothing is explained and they only give you a very rough map. It’s a shame because one leaves the fortress without understanding much.
The streets of Cartagena are full of vendors that are selling all sorts of things, from water and beers, to fruit, sunglasses, gems and other trinkets. They are quite pushy and not very polite. Well all in all, I didn’t find people in Cartagena polite, at least compared to Bogota or Medellin. In general the quality of services was much lower and it might be related to the abundance of tourists or some other reason. I think that was the biggest disappointment with Cartagena.
On the positive side, Cartagena is very lively at any time of the day or night. It is quite charming to take a walk on the city walls in the evening or sit down for a sundowner at Cafe del Mar on the city wall. On the weekends there are things going on in every street and square until late in the night. So if you’re not into party, try to get a room with windows that don’t face the main streets or squares.
Just outside the walled city, there is the area of Getsemaní. This area is full of youth hostels and backpackers, but it is also the place where the locals have fun on a Saturday night. Several streets and squares are full of people listening to music, having drinks and food. It’s really charming to walk around and enjoy the somewhat more of a local atmosphere.
Islas del Rosario and Playa Blanca
South of Cartagena there is a chain of islands called Islas del Rosario. They are mostly private and one can visit only a few of them. On island Barú there is the famous Playa Blanca, which offers white sands and beautiful sea. From the muelle turístico (or through hotels) one can book a day trip to the islands and/or playa blanca.
We were offered two options, either taking the boat that goes first to one of the islands with an aquarium and then to playa blanca leaving the pier at around 9am and returning around 3pm. This option is between $65,000 and $80,000 per person and some agencies include the $15,000 port fee and others don’t (be careful). The other option is going to playa blanca by bus ($50,000), which leaves at 8am and returns at 3pm.
We opted for the bus option as we were not really interested in the aquarium and wanted to spend most of the time on the beach. We bought the tour through our hotel and we had to gather at Puerta de Reloj at 8am. The tour was organised by Optitours and it included a lunch and a bar for 1h. They got us there OK, but the lunch was a big disappointment and the bar was horrific. There was rum, vodka and aguardiente in very dubious containers. They didn’t even tell which one was which. I think they provided a very lousy service for a lot of money. Next time I would prefer to find my own way to the beach, we saw some taxis at the beach parking lot so there must be other options.
The beach is beautiful, water is crystal clear and the sands are completely white. You can rent beach chairs / beds and shade (they call them carpas = tents) for between $20,000 and $40,000 depending on how close to the water you want to be and how much you haggle.
On the downside, the beach is really full of vendors. They come around every second and most are selling the same things. They are very insistent and start pushing things into your hands. It’s not that pleasant and I really hope that one day they’ll learn that their vending tactics are only pushing people away. Everything on the beach is quite expensive, I’d recommend bringing at least water with you. They even charge $1,000 for the toilet.
At the end, we were very happy we took the bus option. The boats looked quite unstable and I’m not sure about their sea-worthiness. The beach was also the nicest in the morning, before the boats arrived. The water was crystal clear and there were not that many people yet. The boats arrived around 12 noon from the aquarium and that’s when the beach became packed and the water like a soup. The people from the boats also had to leave earlier than us, so they stayed very little on Playa Blanca.
Bus from Santa Marta to Cartagena
There are public busses that will take you from the main bus terminal in Santa Marta (to the bus terminal in Cartagena) for around $28,000. However, the bus terminal is quite far from the centre, so we decided to rather take a door-to-door van service. We used MarSol and they picked us up at our hotel and left us at the Puerta del Reloj in Cartagena for $48,000 per person.
They say the service leaves at 8.30am, but they pick you up to one hour before. We were the fist ones to be picked up at 7.30am and then we collected more people in other parts of town and we arrived to Cartagena around 12.30 – 5h in total. The transportation was in a comfortable van for 18 passengers. We made two short stops for WC and food on the way. I think they provided an excellent service and I would definitely recommend this option.
La Mulata: A quirky place serves a fancier version of Caribbean comida corrida. The menu is very simple and centred around fish dishes (they also have some meat options). Each menu comes with a fish soup to start with and the main dish is accompanied with coconut rice and avocado. They also have excellent fruit juices (mango was really good) and lemonades, including coconut lemonade.
Espíritu Santo: Similar to la mulata, also serves comida corrida, but much simpler and less fancy. It is full of locals having their weekend lunch. The menu is very similar, each dish also comes with a soup (fish or chicken) to start with and then a plate of rice, patacones and salad. The experience was nice, food was good, but the service was not that great. I would recommend La Mulata was much more.
La Cevicheria: This small place is extremely popular and busy. Usually there is a long wait list, so I recommend coming early at least to put oneself on the list. They serve a selection of various ceviches and other seafood dishes. I found the food quite bland; the langostines ceviche was good, but the calamari dish (suprema de calamar) was not good at all – the calamar was very chewy. The atmosphere is cool and relaxed, but there is definitely too much hype about this place, and I didn’t find the prices justified at all.
El Santísimo: Fancy place with good food, but slightly cold atmosphere and bad service. They have an extensive menu of typical Caribbean and Colombian dishes. We had some octopus and fish and the food was delicious. However, the service was very poor, the waitresses were very uninterested in their work or recommending any dishes. I really hope they could improve the service as the food was great.
Boutique Hotel de las Carretas: A cute boutique hotel a couple of minutes from the Puerta del Reloj. The location is great, but that also means there’s a lot of noise at night. They also close the front door, and if you’re room is close to reception you can hear the buzzer at any time of the day/night. The room was nice and the staff were very helpful. The breakfast was quite decent as well. A very enjoyable stay.
A collection of my pics from Cartagena in a vlog on YouTube:
Part of a week in Colombia
This was the last stop on a week long trip around Colombia.
We spent two nights in each: Bogota, Medellin, Santa Marta and Cartagena. It was a rushed but well planned trip, and I think we really got a great feel for the country. However, there are many other things to see in Colombia. On future occasions I’d like to go back and see Zona Cafetera, Parque Tayrona (which was closed on our visit), and the Amazon region.
My map of Colombia
I prepared a map with all the places we visited: